China Mobile Intros 'Ophones,' Still Courting Apple

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China Mobile has not given up on offering Apple's iPhone in China, even though it has just launched a similar device in an attempt to be a stronger competitor in the smartphone market.

So far, China Mobile -- the largest mobile carrier in China -- has lost out in the iPhone battle to China Unicom, which got the go-ahead last week to bring two versions of the iPhone to China in the fourth quarter of this year. China Mobile is retaliating with the "Ophone," handsets similar to iPhones but which run a China Mobile OS that has roots in Google's Android OS. The Ophones are manufactured by Dell, HTC and Lenovo, but will be branded by China Mobile and will be available before the end of the year.

The Chinese market is much sought-after because of its enormous size: China is the world's largest mobile phone market -- of its 1 billion-plus citizens, nearly 700 million use mobile phones.

The Chinese have not been able to legally purchase the iPhone in their country since the device first launched in June 2007. Under the new, three-year deal, China Unicom will offer the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS, which reportedly will be Wi-Fi-disabled, according to The Wall Street Journal. The agreement is nonexclusive, which means that China Mobile and Apple could still come to terms.

China Mobile is no Johnny-come-lately to the iPhone; in fact, it has been in talks with Apple for two years. However, China Mobile's plans for a download store -- which ultimately went live in August -- could have been seen by Apple as a rival to the iPhone App Store. China Mobile's app store provides offerings for its Ophones.

Another issue for China Mobile's play for the iPhone has been its use of a domestic mobile standard (TD-SCDMA) for its 3G network, which is not compatible with current iPhone models; the Ophones are compatible with the TD-SCDMA standard.

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